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A brilliant, witty, compelling, poignant, romantic biography of one of the greatest figures in human history
on August 3, 2016
"The cage is empty; the mind has flown." This is how Charles Nicholl ends his biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Nicholl seeks the real Leonardo, not the hagiographic Renaissance superman; indeed, while he concedes you cannot write about Leonardo without using the word "genius," he avoids it at all costs. To Nicholl, Leonardo is a complex man just like any other. Born out of wedlock, he has at best a distant relationship with his father. His career is marked more by what he does not complete than by what he does. His greatest works, The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and perhaps a fresco we will never see, were never completed. His insatiable curiosity constantly leads him to new projects, which will themselves be abandoned. He is private, yet theatrical, and possibly a little flamboyant.
Nicholl presents a humane picture of Leonardo in a compelling, witty, gripping fashion, with moments of slight romanticism and Nicholl's own wistful reflections and longing interpretations, sometimes seeing what he admittedly wants to see.
Perhaps my favorite moment in the book is a summary in which Leonardo spends on jaunts to the hills of Pisa, in conversation with Macchiavelli, and studying math with one of the great Italian Renaissance mathematicians. As Nicholl drily suggests, not a bad way to spend a summer. Inspirational to those of us who live across the ocean 500 years later.